City of Aspen to hold onto existing Wheeler Opera House funds
Wheeler to get facelift
Aspen City Council on Tuesday agreed to a $2.2 million renovation plan for the Wheeler Opera House.
A contract will be before council for approval later this fall for a general contractor and pre-construction services related to the building’s exterior and other infrastructure improvements.
Rob Schober, the city’s capital asset project manager, said a preservation architect to determine how much deterioration there is to the stone and masonry of the historic building is currently doing assessment work.
Other improvements include regarding the sidewalk, stopping storm water infiltration inside the building and possibly snow-melting a path leading from the street to the loading area for easier, safer access.
Council members expressed concern about using snowmelt and asked staff to investigate alternatives.
Aspen City Council decided on Tuesday that the roughly $32 million sitting in the Wheeler Opera House coffers should remain there in case it is needed for future support of the historic building.
Council agreed with Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler’s recommendation to allow outside expert consultants to finish a 20-year facilities master plan to see what it will require to maintain the iconic building in the heart of downtown.
The impetus behind Tuesday’s work session came from the direction of a previous City Council.
In 2018, that council asked for a feasibility study to see whether Wheeler funds should be used to build a second performance facility on a next-door open space parcel — as voters intended in the late 1970s when they passed a real estate transfer tax.
However, city-hired consultants, Theatre Projects and Keen Independent Research, recently determined a second facility is not the best use of that money, or for the continued operation of the Wheeler.
The study was asked for as the council in 2018 was considering repurposing the existing fund, which would require a public vote.
A conversation among current council members, who were elected this past spring, about repurposing future Wheeler real estate transfer taxes will occur this fall when the facilities master plan is presented.
Based on previous work, current estimates are that it will require $20 million over 20 years to continue operating and maintaining the Wheeler.
With Councilwomen Ann Mullins and Rachel Richards supporting a more expansive master plan that extends beyond two decades, the existing Wheeler fund would likely be depleted within 30 years.
It would cost at least $30 million to build a new performing arts facility on an open space parcel next to the Wheeler, in addition to a substantial ongoing annual operational subsidy, according to the consultants.
Building a new facility also would put the current operations of the Wheeler at risk in terms of disruption during construction, with a possible lengthy closure.
There are likely utilities under the parcel that would need to be relocated or removed, and the space already is being used for loading and unloading.
“This parcel is in use, it’s in use extensively,” Daniel Ordower, general manager of Theatre Projects, told council Tuesday.
The consultants’ findings in the community show that residents are divided over whether there is a need for another facility within Aspen.
Many of the arts leaders and key stakeholders have expressed interest in using a 150- to 200-seat flexible venue if one existed.
Recent approvals for the JAS Center Red Onion project could be that spot once it’s built.
“We think that with the commitment to the arts in Aspen … there is a desire for a venue, but this is not the place to go for it,” Ordower said of the second facility next to the Wheeler.
The Wheeler board of directors said they agree with the consultants, and support additional real estate transfer funds being designated toward supporting the established cultural institutions through a larger granting program, or other funding models.
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